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What is Tribal Knowledge?

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Many industrial businesses have heard of the dangers of relying on tribal knowledge. But what exactly does tribal knowledge mean? How does tribal knowledge impact my organization? How do I capture tribal knowledge?

Organizations spend substantial time and resources developing the knowledge and skills of their workforce. While some of this gets translated into procedures and policies, most of it resides in the heads of experienced individuals or functional experts. 

Tribal Knowledge - valuable information that has accumulated through informal channels that remains undocumented and isolated from the rest of the organization

The application, and therefore value, of this knowledge is limited by the capacity of a few select people. We define tribal knowledge as valuable information that has accumulated through informal channels, which remains undocumented and isolated from the rest of the organization.

Tribal Knowledge vs. Other Company Knowledge

There are plenty of alternative terms for tribal knowledge, (institutional knowledge, tacit knowledge, legacy knowledge — to name a few).

While the definitions for these lack consensus, we see the main distinctions revolving around:

  1. How the knowledge was formed
  2. How easily the knowledge can be transferred

Rather than burdening ourselves with the nuances of technical terms, broadly speaking, a company’s information is split up into two camps.

Explicit Knowledge

Explicit or tangible knowledge is the concrete information that comprises essential information and data. Things like standardized procedures and safety protocols are documented by necessity, and are crucial to operations. This knowledge is easy to store and pass between people because it exists in the form of documents, records, or reports.

Implicit Knowledge

Implicit or intangible knowledge includes personal stories, skills, and intuition-based learnings that are accrued through experience, in-person training, or mentorship. This type of knowledge is more difficult to communicate and often remains siloed or lost. A bulk of tribal knowledge falls in this group.

Free Download Solving the Skills Gap on the Factory Floor

How Tribal Knowledge Forms

When implicit knowledge remains in the heads of individuals, tribal knowledge forms. These individuals are referred to as knowledge “gatekeepers,” as they hold valuable information behind a wall. Gatekeepers are your more experienced employees; the go-to experts that you rely on to solve issues. Employees who perform skilled or specialized tasks are also candidates for knowledge gatekeepers.

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself."

 - Henry Ford

Is Tribal Knowledge Bad?

Tribal knowledge isn’t inherently bad. It accumulates naturally in every workplace and is the result of continuous improvement and learning. However, when communication between teams, shifts, or locations becomes isolated — that is when tribal knowledge is a risk. Companies waste valuable time solving problems again...and again. Best practices are left siloed, rather than shared as a group asset.

Especially as manufacturing feels the burden of the skills gap, an over-reliance on tribal knowledge will have a severe impact on performance as the working generations shift. Baby Boomers are retiring at an unprecedented rate of 10,000 workers per day. This mass exodus of experienced workers will hurt businesses who have failed to capture tribal knowledge before it walks out the door.


How to Capture Tribal Knowledge

Knowing how to successfully capture tribal knowledge is a strategy that all industrial businesses will need to develop in order to communicate essential information and bridge the skills gap to prevent downtime, waste, or rework. Unfortunately, most companies don’t discover their reliance on tribal knowledge until it’s too late

When a machine breaks down during a night shift or company experts leave, you can find yourself in a knowledge deficit. The pain of a knowledge deficit isn’t felt until operations are halted, or product quality takes a turn for the worse. To avoid these problems and how to proactively address the talent shortage, download our free guide to Solving the Skills Gap on the Factory Floor.

Free Download Solving the Skills Gap on the Factory Floor


Topic(s): Training
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Written by Dozuki

Founded in 2011, Dozuki has been the leader in connected worker solutions for over a decade. We’ve helped hundreds of companies plan, implement, and scale our frontline digital transformation solution.

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